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Three things to watch: North Carolina

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It’s now or never for the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday in Chapel Hill

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami
Miami Hurricanes safety James Williams (0) kneels on the field after Miami’s 30-28 loss to Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium on September 30.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes (2-3, 0-1) will take on North Carolina (3-3, 2-3) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Chapel Hill in a game that will be broadcast on the ACC Network.

The Hurricanes are coming off a bye week (more on that later) and prior to that, a heartbreaking 30-28 loss to Virginia after freshman kicker Andres Borregales banged the game-winning field goal attempt as time expired off the post. North Carolina was dominated by Florida State 35-25 last week and has struggled mightily in several games it was expected to win this season.

Keep reading for three things to watch in Saturday’s game.

How will Miami perform coming off the dreaded bye week?

I’m not going to quote all of the statistics again and I’m not going to rehash the record because we all know by now how bad Miami has been off extended breaks during the Manny Diaz era.

I will however rekindle one memory and that was from the last time this Hurricane team was in Chapel Hill in September 2019. Coming off of a bye week after losing to Florida in week zero, Miami fell behind 17-3 to North Carolina in the first quarter and wound up losing 28-25 despite compiling over 500 yards of total offense.

If Miami is prepared in the first quarter of that game, it’s likely a different outcome on that September 2019 day in Chapel Hill.

As we all know, Diaz is on the hot seat because of this team’s performance in the first five games. And it isn’t just the 2-3 record, it’s how Miami has looked in compiling that record.

It would go a long way for Diaz to have the Hurricanes prepared to play and as a result, play extremely well in the first quarter.

Miami’s running game must get going

I almost can’t even believe I am typing this after how the 2020 Miami/UNC game went, but with how bad North Carolina’s run defense is, Miami probably has an advantage amongst the two teams’ running games on Saturday.

The Tar Heels surrender almost 160 rushing yards per game on average and Florida State rushed for 238 yards as a team last week in its upset victory. While Miami’s rushing attack has been far from good this season, it looked significantly better against Virginia.

Now, that could very easily be fool’s gold because Virginia also has a pretty lousy run defense. However, getting Jaylan Knighton back to spell Cam’ron Harris was huge for the Miami running game in that Virginia game and will be big for the Hurricanes moving forward.

Harris is a true power runner who is fast when he reaches his top speed, but does not reach that top speed as fast as Knighton does. Knighton is shifty, quicker than Harris, and can get to top speed fast enough to really make a defense pay for not getting to the ball with pace.

Miami sorely missed Knighton during his four-game suspension and I think he will make a big difference for the Hurricanes on Saturday.

As an aside, if Miami cannot run the ball on North Carolina on Saturday, the Hurricanes are going to have major issues offensively not only on Saturday but likely for the rest of the season. Miami has several good rushing defenses coming up on the schedule (North Carolina State, Pittsburgh) and needs to see some positive results to build some confidence in the run game on Saturday.

Establishing the run will also make Tyler Van Dyke significantly more comfortable in his first ACC road start.

Which North Carolina team will Miami see?

It has been a Jekyll and Hyde season for North Carolina thus far — which makes it fair to wonder which Tar Heel team is going to show up on Saturday.

After a season-opening 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech, North Carolina scored 59 points in back-to-back wins over Georgia State and Virginia only to get blown out the next week by Georgia Tech. After a bounce back win over Duke, the Tar Heels were dominated by Florida State last week.

North Carolina lost the turnover battle in all of those losses and Sam Howell was held under 210 yards passing in two of the Tar Heels three losses. With how underwhelming Miami has been on defense this season, I’m not sure it is fair to expect the Hurricanes to win the turnover battle or hold Sam Howell under 210 yards like Virginia Tech and Florida State did.

What can Miami do to help limit this Tar Heel offense? It can get pressure on Howell. The junior was sacked eight times against Georgia Tech and North Carolina has allowed 23 sacks in six games this season. That number is fifth worst in FBS football.

I can envision a scenario where Miami creates pressure on Howell and generates both sacks and turnovers because of this pressure.

However, and this is a major point of consideration, Mack Brown is very familiar with Diaz’s attacking defense. If he knows Diaz wants to attack, and he knows his team is susceptible to giving up sacks, I’m willing to bet that he will have a plan prepared to burn Miami for being overly aggressive on defense, much like Michigan State did with its screen game.

In the Diaz era, North Carolina has given Miami its best shot both times the teams have met. There’s no reason for me to think that won’t happen again on Saturday.